Charities dealing with distressing topics such as illness, starvation, or war have to walk a fine line: they need to increase awareness of what they do without turning off potential supporters and donors. An image of a starving child might get attention online—but also be too difficult for some people to view. University of Hong Kong’s Sara Kim, a graduate of Chicago Booth’s PhD Program, and Booth’s Ann L. McGill suggest a possible fix for this emotionally tricky situation: remind people of their individual existence and value. This “self-affirmation,” which centers on one’s sense of possessing integrity, can prompt a potential donor to help a charity in response to these threatening images, instead of looking away.

When people turn away from painful images, they feel guilty, which presents a difficult cognitive and emotional situation. “To get out of this bind, people might downplay others’ misfortunes—for example, by characterizing them as relatively minor or, where undeniably substantial, as unfortunate but nevertheless commonplace troubles that do not require a call to action,” the researchers write.

Kim and McGill wondered what behavioral strategies might counteract this, reasoning that if people were reminded of who they are at heart—of their distinct identity—they might be less likely to downplay others’ misfortunes because they would not feel threatened or defensive.

Self-affirmation is a difficult concept to articulate, McGill says. “It’s a Popeye-like sense of ‘I am what I am.’ Just feeling fine about one’s existence—that is, being self-affirmed—makes a person a whole lot less defensive about processing troubling information.”

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In one experiment, the researchers had participants carry out a self-affirmation task in which they reflected on a time in their lives when an important personal value—such as artistic skills, sense of humor, or athleticism—had played a central role. This task was intended to affirm participants’ sense of personal integrity, although the values themselves were not directly related to helping others. Other participants, serving as a control group, wrote about a value that was not personally important but might be important to others.

Then all the participants read about a charity that raised awareness of the safety of children’s products, in part by sharing stories of families who had lost a child to a defective product. The researchers measured each group’s likelihood of sharing a Facebook post about the charity.

Among participants who weren’t parents, those who had done the self-affirmation task were significantly more likely to say they’d share the post than those in the control group.

For parents, it made no difference. Self-affirmation worked only if participants didn’t identify too closely with the victims, the researchers find. And in this case, parents felt the issue at hand too personally, Kim and McGill reason.

The researchers saw similar results when they substituted in a nonprofit that promoted breast-cancer screening and measured participants’ interest in and donations to the charity. Male participants who did the self-affirmation task read about the charity for longer and donated more money to it. Women, doing the same self-affirmation task, did not.

The findings suggest that charities may want to consider self-affirmation as a way to help would-be donors embrace a difficult topic more readily—but only if they’re not too close to the situation to begin with. Knowing people are in need “may not be sufficient to produce actual helping behaviors, and appeals that play up the magnitude of the need could even backfire,” the researchers write. “The ‘catch’ is that potential donors might be motivated to turn a blind eye to the distressing information, particularly if they do not relate to the victims. The current research suggests that self-affirmation can help to ‘turn off’ this disregard.”

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